07.27.10

A Girl Triumphs Over an Unspeakable Crime

Nine months ago, The Daily Beast reported on an horrific crime: An Afghan teenager's nose and ears were cut off by vindictive in-laws after she tried to run away from an abusive marriage. Now, after national media attention, Bibi Aisha will travel from Afghanistan to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, reporting from Kabul, follows up on The Daily Beast's December exclusive on the tragedy.

On a sweltering July afternoon in Kabul, Bibi Aisha sits in a second-floor office holding a black scarf dotted with sequins over half her face. The 19-year-old is talking about her upcoming trip to the other side of the world.

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Click above to watch Diane Sawyer's segment on Bibi Aisha, inspired by The Daily Beast's reporting.

"I am really happy about going to California," she says, letting her scarf drop onto her fashionable black pants with embroidered cuffs. "I will get my nose and ears back."

As first reported by The Daily Beast, Bibi Aisha’s husband’s uncle cut her nose and ears off nearly a year ago while her husband tied her down as a crowd of Taliban looked on. The crime for which the men meted out such barbaric punishment? Bibi Aisha brought shame to them after daring to run away following months of beatings from her husband and his family—a family she was married into at age 13 in order to settle a murder committed by her father’s cousin.

The Daily Beast's story on Bibi Aisha—then referred to by the pseudonym "Nadia"—sparked national news coverage, including a segment by Diane Sawyer on ABC World News. After her maiming, Bibi Aisha’s father brought her to a U.S. military-run hospital whose staff helped the young woman find safe haven at a shelter run by the NGO Women for Afghan Women.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s original report on the crime

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: America’s Afghan Women Problem
When I first met Bibi Aisha nine months ago, just after she arrived at the shelter, she was a frightened young woman for whom human contact seemed terrifying. Shelter workers struggled to comfort her and help her through her frequent emotional outbursts. Today, aside from her injury, Bibi Aisha looks like nearly any other teenager. Though still struggling against her emotional scars, she is a poised and very sweet young woman who speaks forcefully about her desire to move forward with her life.

Next month, with support from the Grossman Burn Foundation, she will head to California for a series of surgeries that will give her back the parts of her face stolen from her by an inhuman man with a knife. The Southern California-based organization first heard about Bibi Aisha from Women for Afghan Women, and will fund her travel to the United States and arrange for medical treatment on the ground, along with literacy courses and counseling.

"When I meet the doctor I will tell him all of my story," she says. "My father told me not to tell anyone the full truth, that I was given away, that I went to jail for two or three months, not to tell anyone anything. But I will tell them all these things because I am not such a person to lie; I will tell them because I think my story must be told."

Reflecting on the past months of her life, Bibi Aisha says the shelter has become her home.

"At first I was so upset there in the shelter," she says, re-covering her face with her scarf each time the office door opens. "It was an unfamiliar place and all the people were new; I didn’t want to show my face."

Laila Hayat, a shelter social worker, says it took time to win the young woman’s trust. At first the two talked about fashion and jewelry, things Bibi Aisha enjoyed and which allowed her imagination to stray far from the horrific events she had survived.

Eventually, after several months, she began to open up. With Hayat’s help and weekly visits with a psychologist, her mood swings lessened and she began to forge friendships with other shelter residents, most of whom had suffered beatings, burnings, or electrocutions at the hands of men who were supposed to care for them.

Shelter staff say that Bibi Aisha is now one of their most popular—and most generous—residents.

"She will come back from the bazaar with jewelry and a week later I will ask where her bracelet went?" says Patooni Muhanna of Women for Afghan Women. "She tells me, ‘so-and-so liked it, so I gave it to her.’"

Bibi Aisha smiles sheepishly. "I have many things," she says. "If the others don’t, then I must give my things to them."

Now, Bibi Aisha says she is impatient for the next step in her recovery—the surgery in California. Her post-surgery future, though, remains precarious. Her father has traveled several times from their home province of Uruzgan to the country’s Human Rights Commission in Kabul to lay claim to his daughter. He will find a new husband for her, he has told the commission, as is his right.

Shelter workers say the man has already broken the law by giving his daughter away to settle a family crime and no longer has any claim on her at all.

The resolute teenager at the center of the discussion seems determined to no longer follow others’ orders.

"My father and other relatives, they didn’t allow me to do anything for myself," she says. "They forced me to get married, my father gave me away. I had no control over my own decisions."

Now she says she is ready to shape her own future.

"I just want to wear my scarf and Afghan clothes and pray and keep fast like other Muslim girls," she says. "And I want to learn something in school. That is my decision."

As for Hayat and other shelter staff, they say they will miss their young charge, who has grown so much during the months she spent with them.

"I really feel like she is my own," Hayat says. "She is an honest girl who has a lot of hope. I want all her wishes to come true."

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has spent the last five years reporting on women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict regions, including Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia. Her upcoming book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana , tells the story of a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business created jobs and hope for women in her neighborhood during the Taliban years. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana will be published by HarperCollins in March 2011.